If historical precedent is any guide, the assassination of Ambassador Karlov in Ankara might actually bring Russia and Turkey closer together, whatever their differences might be in Syria.

Flowers near portrait of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov inside the Russian Foreign Ministry. Photo: RIA Novosti

On the evening of Dec. 19, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, a bespectacled, affable, and soft-spoken man, was delivering a speech at a photography exhibition at an art gallery in Ankara. Several minutes into the speech, at 8:15 PM, gunshots were heard and the ambassador fell to the floor dead. The crowd was horrified. Women screamed as the assassin, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, Mevlut Mert Altintas, jumped forward with gun in hand.

“Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest”) shouted Altintas, dressed in a black suit and tie. “We are the descendants of those who supported the Prophet Muhammad, for jihad,” he said in Arabic.

He then added in Turkish, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria,” a reference to the recent recapture of Aleppo by the Syrian Army from rebel forces. Altintas, who was fired from the police in the aftermath of the attempted coup against Erdogan in July, was shot dead by security guards.

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“It’s a tragic day in the history of our country and Russian diplomacy,” remarked Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “Ambassador Karlov has made a lot of personal contributions to the development of ties with Turkey. He has done a lot to overcome a crisis in bilateral relations. He was a man who put his heart and his soul into his job. It’s a terrible loss for us and also the world.”

Russian has decried the assassination as an act of terrorism. Significantly, it occurred a day before a planned meeting between the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss Syria. It also occurred amid a growing thaw in Russian-Turkish relations, following a crisis in relations after the downing of the Russian Sukohi Su-24 plane by Turkey on the Syrian border in November 2015.

“A crime has been committed,” remarked Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It was without doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations and spoiling the Syrian peace process, which is being actively pushed by Russia, Turkey, Iran and others. There can only be one response - stepping up the fight against terrorism. The bandits will feel this happening.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed these sentiments, as did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who “strongly” and “vehemently” condemned the assassination.

“I believe this is an attack on Turkey, the Turkish state and the Turkish people, and also a clear provocation to Turkish-Russian relations,” he said.  “I am sure our Russian friends also see this fact.”

The assassination was also condemned internationally. UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon condemned it as a “senseless act of terror.” UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated that he was “shocked to hear of [the] despicable murder of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey.” “My thoughts are with his family,” he added.  “I condemn this cowardly attack.”

In a statement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump also condemned the assassination, adding that, “The murder of an ambassador is a violation of all rules of civilized order and must be universally condemned.”

Echoes of history

The assassination of a Russian ambassador is not without historical precedent.  Perhaps the most relevant historical episode that immediately comes to mind is the death of Alexander Griboyedov, Russia’s ambassador to Persia in the early 19th century. A playwright, poet, and composer, Griboyedov had a great affinity for the Caucasus and even married a Georgian countess, Nino Chavchavadze. He was also sympathetic to the Decembrists and even faced trial in 1826 over his alleged involvement in the Decembrists’ uprising of 1825.

It was Griboyedov who authored the celebrated Russian comedy "Woe from Wit".  The satire is now regarded as a classic of Russian literature but was censored during Griboyedov’s lifetime. It was only performed once in Griboyedov’s presence in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Coincidentally, President Putin was scheduled to see a performance of Griboyedov’s play, only to cancel his visit due to news of Ambassador Karlov’s assassination.

 

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As the Russian ambassador to Persia, Griboyedov was assassinated in 1829. The assassination occurred amid the rise of anti-Russian sentiment in Persia following Russia’s annexation of Transcaucasian territories in the treaties of Turkmenchai (1828) and Gulistan (1813). The Turkmenchai Treaty, which concluded the Russo-Persian War of 1826-28 and ceded Yerevan, Echmiadzin, Mount Ararat, and the Talysh region to Russia, was particularly humiliating for the Persians.

Griboyedov’s protection of two Armenian girls and a eunuch, who had escaped the Shah’s harem, served as the immediate cause for his assassination. The three sought asylum at the Russian embassy. According to the terms of the Turkmenchai Treaty, Armenians and Georgians in Persia were permitted to move to Georgia and Russian Armenia. The Shah demanded the return of the fugitives. Griboyedov refused.

This incident prompted massive anger in Tehran. A mob of Persians besieged the Russian compound and Griboyedov was eventually assassinated. “He fell under Persian daggers,” wrote the Russian poet Pushkin, “a victim of ignorance and perfidy.”

Notably, Griboyedov’s assassination marked a turning point in Russian-Persian relations that eventually led to a thaw in relations between the two countries. There was great fear in Persia that the assassination would prompt yet another war with Russia.

Seeking to defuse tensions, Tehran sent a delegation bearing a letter of apology and priceless gifts. The delegation, which was led by Prince Khosrow Mirza, visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. They were greatly charmed by what they saw. In turn, the Russians were charmed by the Persian delegation. On August 22, 1829 Mirza read Fath-Ali Shah’s letter of apology to Tsar Nicholas I. The mission succeeded in forging good relations between Russia and what would become modern-day Iran.

Historical lessons

There are lessons to be learned from this history. Could the tragic assassination of Ambassador Karlov similarly intensify efforts for a Russian-Turkish rapprochement in the face of opposition from certain forces within Turkey?

The possibility is definitely there and the desire for better relations certainly exists on both sides. One promising sign was President Erdogan’s phone call to President Putin almost immediately after the tragedy. However, the question remains: Can Turkey overcome its differences with Russia, even if it means sacrificing its ambitions in Syria? This remains a more fundamental diplomatic challenge, but it is not an insurmountable one, as history illustrates.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.